Ben is getting tested today. Ben is getting tested today. Ben is getting tested today.
I couldn’t think about anything else. I couldn’t do anything but worry. I sat in front of my computer, Photoshop open, with the latest draft of the month of January for my wildlife calendar series filling the screen. I hadn’t touched the mouse in half an hour.
Sam, my little empath, stood next to me, his head on my leg. I curled my fingers into the fur on his neck, feeling like my grip on him was the only thing holding me together. If I let go, I’d curl up in a ball and start sobbing.
This was terrible. The worst I’d felt since Renee started to go downhill. And it brought up all of the associated emotions. I felt crippled by them. To the point that I might need some profession help to pull myself out of it.
“Come on, bud,” I told Sam, standing from my chair to pace out into the living room.
I curled up on the chaise, and Sam bounded up next to me. Fred, right behind him, jumped onto the footrest and sprawled out next to my legs. I opened my phone’s browser and checked, for the millionth time, if Ben had been spotted in Boston yet. It looked like no. Thank God. The last thing he needed on top of everything else was the attention of the media.
Feeling only slightly better, I pulled up Sophia’s number and hit the call button. It was Saturday, so she shouldn’t be working. Not unless a client needed an emergency session.
She answered on the third ring. “Hi, Ella.”
“Can I come over?” I asked, my voice raw.
“Of course. Are you okay?”
“No, but I can’t get into it over the phone or I’ll lose it.”
“I understand. Come on over. We’re home.”
“Thank you so much.”
We hung up, and I forced myself to stand. I got all the way to the front door and started to pull my winter gear on when I looked down at myself. I couldn’t remember the last time I had showered. The day before Ben left? Had I been wearing these pajamas since that night? I pulled the fabric of my shirt up and smelled it.
Sam pressed against my leg and whimpered. I must have looked as bad as I felt.
“I’m okay,” I told him, not sure why I was lying.
I dropped my snow pants and went to shower, where I scrubbed myself under the hot water until my skin turned red. Afterward, I pulled on clothes without really looking at them. I braided my hair because I didn’t have the patience for anything else. Then I was out the door, tugging on my heavy coat as I went. I started the truck and blasted the heat while the dogs went pee-poop before we left. It was still frigid in the cab when I pulled out onto the road, but I didn’t have the patience to wait for the heat to kick on.
I forced myself to drive the speed limit to Sophia and Jacob’s place – a decent-sized colonial farmhouse down in the valley closer to town. Snowmen dotted their yard, signs that the boys had been taking advantage of their days off from school and pre-K.
Sophia met me at the door, as polished as always even though she was wearing leggings and a large sweater that swamped her small frame. Her thick, curly hair fell loose around her in perfect ringlets I’d always been covetous of. Even with copious amounts of hairspray I could never achieve them.
I felt like shit in comparison, guilt at letting myself fall apart this much warring for dominance with all the other emotions currently battling it out in the gladiatorial arena that had become my mind.
She held out a couple of towels, and together we get the dogs cleaned off. The second they were free, they went racing past us in search of my nephews.
“You look like hell,” Sophia said.
I wasn’t insulted. I needed her bluntness right now. “I feel like hell.”
Evan came around the corner of the hallway, Fred hot on his heels. “Auntie Ella?” He beamed when he caught sight of me, then started running.
I scooped him up and hugged him to me, trying to keep my tears at bay.
“Are you sick?” he asked when I set him down. “You don’t look good.”
“Not sick,” I told him. “Just sad.”
He frowned for a second, staring up at me, and then his expression brightened, as though he’d just had a great idea. He turned to race upstairs.
“What’s he doing?” I asked his mom.
He came back holding his teddy bear, offering it up as he stopped in front of me. “Mr. Bear always makes me feel better when I’m sad.”
It was a struggle to keep from crying as I took it. “Thank you so much, Evan.”
Sofia leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. “You are so sweet to share Mr. Bear with Auntie Ella.”
He kissed her back, then turned and headed into the house.
“Come on. I have ice cream,” Sofia told me.
We walked down the long hallway to the kitchen, pausing by the living room so that I could say hi to Michael, who sprawled out on the floor, playing with Sam, while his brother and Fred crowded together in an armchair watching cartoons.
Sofia’s phone rang from the kitchen island as she pulled the freezer open. She turned to pick it up and answered in Italian. It must have been her mother. She was the only person I’d heard her speak nothing but Italian to. With her sisters, it was usually a mix of Italian and English. With her dad, straight English.
They chatted for several minutes while Sofia got out bowls and spoons for the two of us and scooped us out healthy dollops of Cherry Garcia.
“How is Ma Trocci?” I asked after she hung up.
“Better now that Bernadetta is back at home to help with the bills.”
“She’s your youngest sister, right? The math whiz?”
Sophia nodded. “Yup. The place she was interning with just offered her a job. It’s some high-end wealth management firm in Boston, so she should be able to start making some headway in her student debt.”
“I thought she had all those scholarships.”
“She did,” she told me, pausing to take a bite of ice cream. “But Harvard is still outrageously expensive, and they didn’t cover all her costs. At least she was smart enough to take up our parents’ offer to live with them for a while. Renting a decent place in Boston is almost as expensive as New York, and she couldn’t swing that while also paying off her loans, even with the healthy salary she’s now making.”
We were quiet for a few minutes as we tucked into our ice cream. I stared down into mine like it could solve all my problems. Maybe it could. A food coma sounded good right now.
“What’s going on, Ella?” Sophia asked. “I don’t think I’ve seen you this down since Renee passed.”
“Can I ask you not to repeat this to the family?”
“I’ll give you full client privilege.”
“You remember me talking about my friend Stan at Jacob’s going away?”
“Well, he has some past head trauma and is having tests done today to see if he might have signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, damn.”
“So this must be bringing up all those memories of Renee for you.”
“He’s not just a friend, though, right? You two are romantically involved?”
She nodded. “Okay, so what are you hoping for here? Do you want me to help you sort through all these feelings?”
“Please,” I said, my tone skirting the line of begging.
“The first step is acknowledging them. Tell me what you feel.”
“I’m terrified that the tests might come back positive. And I keep going worst-case scenario with it.”
She set her ice cream bowl in the sink. “What is worst-case scenario?”
“That he has scarring, that he has tons of abnormal proteins, and that his brain is already showing signs of deterioration. It kills me to think of this sweet, generous, caring man having uncontrollable angry outbursts, or becoming violent, or suffering from memory loss, or…” I leaned forward, head in my hands.
“It’s okay,” Sophia said, coming over to hug me while I cried.
“And I also feel like an asshole. Like, how do I have any right to be so torn up over this when I’m not even going through it?”
She pulled away from me. “You really like him, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” I told her.
“Ella, look at me.”
I craned my head sideways, and she cupped my cheeks and met my eyes, her own full of empathy. “Your feelings are valid. Your feelings matter. If Jacob was going through the same thing as Stan, I would be doing the emotional equivalent of shitting myself. The threat of a chronic, debilitating illness is terrifying. It’s okay to be afraid for him. It doesn’t mean that you’re putting your fear above his in any way.”
She let me go and shook her head. “No buts here. Feel the emotions. If you try to suppress them, you’ll only make things worse for yourself. I’m a professional here, I think I know what I’m talking about.”
I grabbed a napkin from the countertop and blotted at my face. “Right. You’re right.”
“You don’t always have to be strong for everyone, you know. You don’t always have to be happy, bubbly Ella.”
“I know that.”
“Do you, though? Because whenever I see you sad or angry you apologize for it.”
“I…do I really do that?”
“You do. Here,” she said, pulling up her phone. “I’m sending you a list of emotional exercises I think will help with that.”
My phone dinged with an incoming email. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Let me know if you have questions or want help with them.”
“Right now, we need to focus on your path forward through this current situation. Like I said, you need to feel these emotions. But with balance. If you start to get overwhelmed, like you clearly were when you got here, stop whatever you’re doing. Get up and do some jumping jacks, take the dogs outside, or even watch a bunch of videos of people doing dumb things on YouTube. Distraction techniques are actually really beneficial in the short term.”
“Okay,” I said, reaching out for Mr. Bear, who I had set aside while eating my ice cream.
“When you’re able to, go all the way to the end of that worst-case scenario.”
I clutched the stuffed animal close, my fear returning in full force.
“It doesn’t have to be today, or even tomorrow,” she told me. “But you need to chase that path, and instead of dwelling on how horrible it will be, find solutions. Say he might have memory loss. Okay, find some brain exercises that have proven effective for Alzheimer’s patients. Things like that.”
“I…I think I can manage that.”
“I think so too. You’re a helper. You have been for at least as long as I’ve known you. That desire to take action, to do something to make things better is your best ally right now. Especially after Stan’s diagnosis. However it turns out.”
“Are there specific ways that I can help him?” I asked.
She nodded. “There are. One way is to encourage him to feel whatever losses he might have. Loss is like a wound, and grief can be considered the healing element. The bigger his loss, the longer it might take for him to heal, so expect him to be down for a while.”
I chewed my bottom lip for a minute. “So, he has depression and anxiety. Could heavy grief be dangerous for him?”
“You mean could it make him suicidal?”
Oh, God. “Yes.”
“It might, Ella. There’s really no way to tell. Everyone is different. But yes, I’d say the chance is higher. Does he have a therapist?”
“He does. And he says during his lower points he talks to him every day.”
She nodded. “That’s good. He should stick tight to that. He might need to adjust any medication he’s on too. And maybe not be left alone for too long.”
“His parents are with him now.”
“He might need them to stay for a while. With brain injuries, as with diseases like cancer, there can be a lot of collateral loss. Like the financial burden of medical bills, the inability to trust yourself in social situations, maybe not being able to work or drive. These will be future losses for him, things his doctors will eventually tell him he has to consider, which can cause something called anticipatory grief.”
“Anticipatory grief? I’ve never even heard of that.”
She leaned her hands on the kitchen island. “Renee went so quickly after her diagnosis that there wasn’t really time for me to bring it up with you. Basically, once Stan’s initial grief is over, he’ll have all these microcosms of it. The important thing is to keep to the same process of healing. He needs to allow himself to feel each potential loss ahead of time and accept the reality of it. This will really help him when it comes time to actually experience the loss. And he needs to realize that he’ll have setbacks. That some days he might feel fine, and then the next he can’t get out of bed because he’s so sad.”
“Is there anything I can do to help him with that?”
“The first thing is to realize that you might experience it right along with him. Apply the same techniques to your own emotions. Grieve, accept the potential loss, and, for you, find a way to help him do the same. Whether that’s as simple as staying with him on his bad days, or encouraging him to feel his emotions. Men can sometimes struggle most with that.”
“Okay. Thank you so much for this, Sophia.”
She reached for her phone again. “You’re welcome. Here, I have some more exercises for that. And some links if you get stuck and you can’t get reach me for whatever reason,” she said, fingers flying over her phone screen as she fired off more emails.
My own phone dinged several times from beside me.
“Do you have anything to help me through the next few days while I wait to hear from him about his results?” I asked her.
She arched a brow. “I got some horse tranquilizers I could douse you with. Put you under for at least 48 hours.”
“I can’t tell if you’re joking or not, but if you’re not, yes please.”
She grinned. “You knew I was joking. Okay, so here’s what might work best.”
We talked for another hour, until I ran out of questions. When we were done, she invited me to stay the rest of the afternoon. We called Mom around two and planned out Jacob’s welcome home party. When the sun finally broke through the clouds, we shoved ourselves into our snow gear and went out to add another few snowmen to the village cluttering up their front yard.
Afterward, I read a sleepy Evan his favorite book. He conked out on the couch halfway through the third chapter. Michael and I sat close by on the living room floor and played a few quiet rounds of Mario Kart on Jacob’s old game console. Michael kicked my ass. The little game shark. Later, I helped Sofia make her mother’s recipe for pasta fazool, and she taught me a little Italian while we worked – mostly swear words, which she insisted were the best introduction into any language.
I left her house feeling much better than I had when I’d arrived. When I got home, I sunk down onto the couch, let myself be terrified until I couldn’t take it anymore, and then pulled up the YouTube channel for a vocal competition and watched all of the auditions.
I went to bed earlier than normal, worn out from the emotional rollercoaster I’d been stuck on the past few days.
I fell asleep thinking about Ben.
And woke up to what seemed like a nightmare.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.